Ian Barlex, consultant editor, reviews the contents of the Traffic Commissioners’ Annual Report for 2018–2019, in respect of PSV operations.

Introduction

The Traffic Commissioners (TCs) constitute a non-departmental tribunal public body, sponsored by the Department of Transport, and fulfil the role of independent regulators of the heavy goods vehicle (HGV) and public service vehicle (PSV) industries. For more details of the TCs duties and responsibilities, see under Traffic Commissioners in the Regulatory Bodies in the PSV Industry topic.

The TCs have presented an Annual Report to the Secretary of State since 1932, and they are currently required to report annually by the provisions of the Public Passenger Vehicles Act 1981. Their report for 2018–2019 (for the year ending 31 March 2019) has just been published, and this feature article summarises some of the key points it includes in respect of the PSV sector.

Contents of the Report

The 58 page report contains four principal sections.

  1. A summary of the TCs role and strategic objectives, and their performance against targets.

  2. A summary of the TCs future strategic plans.

  3. The individual TCs reports for the year.

  4. A series of detailed licensing and compliance statistics.

The report emphasises the scale of the operations overseen by the TCs — quite apart from the haulage and logistics sector, which is the fifth largest employer in the UK, there are 133,000 bus and coach drivers delivering around five billion local bus and scheduled coach passenger journeys each year, which represents well over half of all public transport journeys. The summary of statistics shown later in this feature article translates these volumes into some of the areas delivered and administered by the TCs in respect of operator, vehicle and driver licensing, and regulatory activities.

Role, Objectives and Performance

The document re-states the TCs core roles, which are to:

  • provide statutory guidance and directions to the industry

  • hold regulatory hearings, and to act to maintain safety standards and to promote fair competition

  • hold conduct hearings, acting to uphold professional driving standards

  • deal with the most serious cases quickly and fairly

  • deliver efficient, digital licensing services

  • identify and share knowledge on non-compliance with other regulatory bodies

  • work to improve industry awareness of the value of compliance and the licensing regime.

The TCs published two key strategic objectives in 2016, which they sought to achieve by the end of the 2018–19 year reported on here. These were the following.

  1. To deliver a modern effective licensing regime, ensuring operators are fit to hold a licence.

  2. To promote a safe industry, supporting compliance and fair competition and protecting the environment.

In developing these objectives, they acknowledged three associated strategic challenges.

  1. Fee reform.

  2. Recruitment of the appropriate staff.

  3. Legislative reform.

The report assesses progress in delivering the various component measures within the two objective areas set out above. It comments that the challenge to reduce average processing times for cases remains in part, because it is influenced by the level of incomplete applications, with the TCs staff having to devote time to assist applicants to supply all of the required information.

Progress in other areas was generally good, with the digital Vehicle Operator Licensing platform now fully implemented, meaning that operators are able to apply for, change, amend and surrender licences without utilising any paper processes. The TCs support staff are provided by DVSA, and it is acknowledged that it has been difficult, sometimes in specific area offices, to recruit and retain suitable staff. The TCs continue to work with DVSA on this.

Future Strategic Plans

The TCs set out their views on strategic plans for the period to 2021. They emphasise that they operate a system which is stable and accepted by the industries, and that their key objectives must continue to be to run a modern and effective licensing regime, and to promote safe road transport operations. A new agenda has been put in place for the period from 2019 to 2021, which includes the following:

  • preparing for the future — dealing with guidance, case law, and advice for the pre and post Brexit period

  • supporting responsible businesses and reducing the average time taken to make decisions on their new and major variation applications to 35 days

  • an internal audit of priority areas of activity that support the TCs in exercising their legal functions

  • to continue to work on a fairer fee regime for the future

  • to deal promptly with cases involving non-compliance

  • to ensure that tribunal facilities are modern, accessible, and up to standard

  • to improve communications and educational guidance to the industry

  • to modernise the measurement of local bus punctuality and reliability – the current standards have now been in place for many years despite changing operational circumstances (for more detail see under Punctuality of Local Services in the Local Service Registration topic)

  • good communications and effective relationships with partners, including other regulators.

Individual Reports

Practice prior to 2017–18 was for each TC to provide an individual report on key themes and observations in relation to their own Traffic Area for the past year. This latest report continues the revised structure adopted a year ago, which sees the comments of the six English TCs combined into one section, followed by those of the TCs for Scotland and Wales, respectively.

Brake performance and other areas of non-compliance

An important issue addressed in the report of the English TCs is brake performance and brake testing (a problem that has been particularly acute in respect of HGVs and trailers, but a core safety issue for PSVs too). The TCs remark favourably upon operators’ increased investment in brake roller test equipment, but note that brake performance remains the top reason for MOT failure.

The TCs go on to comment about other areas of non-compliance that continue to cause them concern, including transport manager effectiveness; maintenance inspection frequencies and paperwork.

Scotland

The new Scottish TC, Claire Gilmore, reports for the first time, and for a short period, having taken up the post in February 2019. She refers to her initial engagement with numerous stakeholders, in particular commenting upon the development of the Transport (Scotland) Bill, the significant effect it may have on operators, and the need for fair and effective regulation.

So far as hearings are concerned, she makes observations on a range of driver conduct issues that have already come to her attention, including early running, driving time offences, speeding, and the use of mobile phones while driving. She commits to holding to account those drivers who fail to act safely and professionally, while expressing concern that for their part, drivers are suffering all too often from a lack of suitable rest and refreshment facilities, which are important to their ability to deliver a safe experience for customers.

Wales

The Welsh TC, Nick Jones, who retires shortly, refers to various structural issues specific to the function in Wales. He expresses satisfaction that new accommodation will soon be ready within the principality to house the TC, supporting staff and hearings, and refers to the recruitment of local, bilingual, staff. He also talks of the potential for PSV operator licensing to be dealt with at the new facilities in Caernarfon, rather than in Leeds, which has staffing issues; and of the possible devolution of some DVSA functions to Wales. Devolution of industry functions to the Welsh Assembly Government is addressed in some detail in the Wales topic.

PSV Industry Statistics

As ever, the statistical data makes for interesting reading, and provides a digestible summary reiterating the scale of the business, and of the regulator’s job.

Some key PSV industry metrics taken from the report are presented below.

  • The number of licences in issue has reduced quite sharply compared with the previous year — by just over 9% — from 8756 to 7948. The reduction has been across the board, but is particularly acute for restricted licences, which have reduced by 13.6%. The number of standard national licences has fallen by 7.8%; while for standard international licences the decline has been a more modest 2.9%. A glance at the previous year’s report shows that this is a continuing trend but an accelerating one (the reduction for the previous year was just 1% in all).

  • The number of discs in issue has also come down, in total by a little under 2% from 94,349 to 92,557.

  • The number of standard, large and community bus permits issued (an area of some contention within the industry — see the Permit Operations topic) increased sharply from around 6900 to 9800.

  • The special restricted licence segment (licensed taxi operators using taxis to operate local services) remains tiny, with the number of licences in issue down from 96 to 83, and just 3 new applications processed (all were granted) during the year.

  • The number of new licence applications processed during the year increased — from 789 to 837 — but so did the number refused (from 156 to 227).

  • Once again, over 20,000 local bus service registrations were processed during the year.

  • Nearly 1600 public inquiries and over 3000 driver conduct hearings were held.

Summary

The report provides an insight into the current thinking, concerns, objectives and priorities of the industry’s independent regulators. Every PSV operator, large and small, will have an interface with the TC at regular intervals, and needs to understand the TC’s interpretation of the standards which reflect safe and compliant operation. As such, this is important reading for participants in diverse roles across the industry.

The full text of the report may be found at GOV.UK website.

Last reviewed 1 November 2019